Tagged: teleology

Teleology, Chapter 1

Teleology CoverartA sense of purpose is a hard-fought and hard-learned achievement for anyone, but for a twin it is always overshadowed by a sense of duality. Shared reference points—languid and lazy summers, tiny tragedies—dodge and weave together and remembrances are broken into equal parts of self and mirror self. Was it his observation or mine? Who made the comment and why? Since the twin is an ever-present reflection, the narratives of shared discovery from the earliest days mask differences.

Mom calls to us as we look for satellites between Jupiter and Mars, “Harold! Mike! Time to come in now!” The damp summer grass is at our back. Just audible, beneath the chant of crickets, is the murmur of cottonwoods at the edge of our yard as a breeze crawls up the canyon.

“I got one. North to South,” my brother says and swipes at the stars with his hand.


He points again and I ease my head over to his shoulder to try to line up with his fingertip.

Finally it resolves for me as I defocus and refocus my eyes: a pinprick of light in the indigo sliding between the silvery weave of stars.

“Spy satellite. Polar orbit,” I say. I try to imagine the view from the satellite, as if I was a hitchhiker holding on to the solar panels and looking down at the dark Earth below. Dish antennas rotate and twitch, seeking out radio signals far below the faint splashes of city lights. Space is cold and quiet, even the wind tamped out, until…

Mom is calling again.

It is the summer of 2002 and Harry and I are both 10 years old. We live in Santa Fe, New Mexico and our lives and our purposes are unremarkably simple. Time creeps along through vast days in a vast landscape and I feel like though I have many foggy memories I am only just beginning to have thoughts that are not simple reactions to people and events around me. And with those thoughts is a nascent longing to understand what and who I am—to uncover a sense of purpose.

For me, the 4th grade has been traumatic and I am leery of the coming new school year. Sarah Collins was the problem. A lithe gymnast, Sarah was also a Christian and wanted others to know it, too. I was, well, not sure what I was. Mom and Dad had never really discussed religion with us as something Americans actually did. Mom was an anthropologist and Dad a physicist, so we discussed everything as thoughtfully as was humanly possible, with Dad sometimes draining all mystery out with a short proclamation: “Well, there’s absolutely no evidence of that.” Religion was talked about as something other people did, with the same intellectual detachment with which Dad described the duality of subatomic particles, at once both like the rolling waves of the ocean and like peas on a dinner plate.

And so I was blindsided when Sarah and her friend Naomi cornered me and asked what church I went to. No church, I admitted, and their faces grew worried.

“You are going…down there,” Naomi whispered, stabbing her finger dramatically at the ground.

“Where?” I asked, wondering if she was referring to some system of mines or the sewers.

“You know, the fire place,” she continued, still pointing towards the blacktop of the school basketball court.

Despite an initial concern that perhaps she meant the magma-filled core of the Earth itself, I quickly realized that Naomi was concerned about Hell.

“Do you mean Hell?” I asked.

Her eyes enlarged, framing her dark irises in a sea of white. “Yes. If you don’t go to church you will go to that place.”

Sarah’s eyes paralleled her friend’s dramatic oscillations, emphasizing each shocked expression with a faint gasp.

“When?” I asked.

“When you die,” she responded.

My mind raced at these strange ideas. I knew about many things, about how babies come about, about how atoms split and energy was released, about how gravity pulled things together, and about how animals changed over time, but the idea that when I die I might end up in a burning place struck me as remarkably weird. Following Naomi’s finger deep into the Earth led through the crust and into the mantle. Heat increased, it’s true, but the relationship to churches seemed incomprehensible. Did churches have geothermal heating? I had heard of such things and was impressed that they had figured that out, but wasn’t sure why it should concern me after death. I assumed my family would take my body and bury or cremate it.

“I don’t think so,” I responded. “My family will bury me after I die.”

Naomi and Sarah were perplexed. There was a simple symmetry to life and death in their minds, and here was a boy who didn’t seem to understand that human life continued beyond the cessation of body functions.

“No, your soul will burn.”

“Soul,” I repeated back to them. I had heard the term on TV, both as an abstract notion of human life and as a type of music from long ago. The soul seemed to be something like our personality or self awareness, but the way Naomi was using the term it seemed to survive death and get burned if it missed going to church.

The bell rang and we moved towards the classroom. My mind raced, though. How was it that this soul survived physical death and why would church prevent the soul from being burned? After all, wouldn’t a body be required in order to be affected by fire—to be burned? How could a personality be burned?

Harry, later, was equally perplexed, but also seemed intrigued by my interaction with Sarah and Naomi. “Was that before lunch?” he asked.

“Yeah. I was playing wall ball with Scott,” I replied. Harry’s expression gave him away. “You like her?”

“I guess. I dunno. I suppose, sure,” he responded, his eyes crawling the wall, fixing on a Star Trek poster.

“Sarah’s nice, I guess,” I replied, “but this whole soul burning thing really upset me. Why would she and Naomi say such weird things about souls and Hell and all that?”

“I dunno. I guess their families are religious and that’s what they believe.”

“Well, it just seems mean. I didn’t mess with them. Why would they do that?” I responded.

“I’m not sure. It seems strange, though. It’s kinda like the descriptions of Io or Titan with their strange atmospheres, or like the horror films. You know, demons jamming sharpened crosses into people.” Harry jabbed his finger into my belly, setting off a tickling and wrestling fight that only ended when Mom yelled to us to keep the noise down from upstairs.

Mom did research and wrote for archaeological magazines about topics as far ranging as Anasazi myths and Celtic moon rituals, and she needed quiet in the afternoons.

I whispered, “Well, I don’t know why they needed to be so mean.”

My brother smirked and responded, “I’ll ask them.”

“Don’t!” I blurted, but knew that it was no use. Harry would pursue the issue if for no other reason than to embarrass me.

I feigned indifference, hoping to dissipate his desire to test the waters of my indignation and nascent interest in the girls—Sarah especially—but he was a twin and my charade was almost transparent from the moment I spoke. There was no chance of deflecting him, now. I just had to ride the wave.

Teleology, Chapter 6

Teleology CoverartThrough that winter, as I recall, Harry became even more involved with the church. I kept my mouth shut about his choices. Mom, sensing that I might be feeling left out, pushed me to get involved in a mentoring program for gifted students after I opened up with my theories about evolutionary simulation and meaning.

My first meeting with my assigned mentor went pretty well, though he intimidated me by not responding immediately to most of what I described. Dr. Korporlik was Serbo-Croatian by ethnicity and had worked for years as a computer scientist and mathematician at the nearby Department of Energy laboratory, Los Alamos, after coming to the US via German laboratories. He was now at a local think tank—the Rio Grande Group—that specialized in studying complex systems. I knew next to nothing about RGG when my school counselor set up my appointment to meet Korporlik. On a crisp November night, Mom drove me to their office building near the downtown plaza. She planned on doing some grocery shopping and left me with instructions to call her if I finished before the allocated hour was up.

Korporlik introduced himself and said he worked on problems in computer science mostly, but that those problems had parallels in biology, and asked what I thought about school.

“It’s OK,” I said.

“Good grades, I think?” he responded.

“Yeah, I get pretty much all As unless I get too bored and then I sometimes get lazy,” I said.

“Yes, it is a common problem. The schools here could be more challenging, yes?” He said rapidly. His accent was fairly thick with chirpy Germanic overtones.

“I guess so. I don’t mind it being easy, I guess. Less homework means more time for other things,” I responded.

“Alright,” he said, “I will give you some other things to think about.” He handed me a book from his bookshelf and waved his hand dismissively in the air. “Come back next week and we will discuss it.”

The book had a soft cover with some diagrams and seemed cheap. “Ilya Prigogine,” I mouthed and he nodded and turned towards the whiteboard behind him.

I left and walked a block towards the plaza glancing at the introduction. Korporlik had not impressed me. He was too distracted and uninterested in talking about ideas. I wasn’t sure if it was because I had been uninteresting in my comments or whether he was just so inwardly focused that everyone only commanded a few moments of his attention. I would read the book but somehow doubted that discussions with him about it would result in new insights insofar as he stayed a dour Eastern European enigma.

The back of the book and the preface were already grabbing my attention, though. Self-organizing chemical systems that could become more complex over time, seemingly defying the idea that entropy breaks things down in an inevitable process. Why had he given me a book about chemistry when he was a computer scientist? Yet the parallels with my conceptual problems with evolution seemed obvious. If chemical systems could self-organize and become more complex, they were moving towards the kinds of replication that was essential for variation and selection—the key components of evolution.

Mom was clearly irritated when she finally located me after rounds of text messaging. The evening was turning frosty as she pulled through the plaza, the warm glow of candelarias already shining from the rooftops of galleries and restaurants. The other kids had dispersed early because of the chill, leaving me perched alone on a bench seatback, the cold of the formed cement beginning to penetrate my light jacket as I projected misty funnels of breath against the sharp moonlight.

At home, I found Harry reading in the den and was surprised to see it was a copy of a Bible that Dad had gotten from my uncle and left untouched on a bookshelf. He had been an advocate, like Mom, of the idea that no books should be excluded from our consideration, yet seeing Harry pouring over it was a violation of the principle because I wasn’t convinced he had the proper detachment to understand the book in context at this point.

“You’re reading the Bible?” I asked with a tone of amused derision.

“Sure,” he responded, “Sarah thinks I need to read it.”

“Uh-huh, Sarah. So you don’t want to read it?”

“Naw, that’s the wrong impression. You’re too cynical. She mentioned it and I am reading it. Have you read it?” he asked.

“Well, some of the Old Testament and chunks of the New,” I responded, confident that there was nothing new he could spring on me.

“Right, chunks,” he smiled at me, though it was an accurate description of my interaction with the book. I had read Genesis closely, but got lost in all the “who begat whom” language, ultimately skipping through to Exodus.

“Really, I did chunks. I was at the Rio Grande Group HQ down by the plaza tonight. I had a really interesting meeting with my contact, there,” I exaggerated. “We discussed how entropy can actually create complex systems.”

“Entropy? Isn’t that randomness?” He asked.

“Not exactly, but it is the reduction in order that is in the universe as a whole. Things fall apart,” I said, suspecting he would not get the reference. We had been growing apart over the past several years, but things had really accelerated in the last year or so, and I was beginning to feel like I was capable of manipulating him at a certain level.

“So how can a reduction in order create anything?” he asked.

“The key is that entropy only increases for closed systems without energy inputs. The universe as a whole is an example, but for the Earth it doesn’t apply. The sun is constantly supplying energy.”

“I don’t buy it. Watches don’t self-assemble, regardless of the energy. You are trying to justify evolution and it just seems ridiculous to me,” he proclaimed.

“Ridiculous?” I was on my heels. I was impressed with Prigogine as a technical solution to the problem of entropy and the possibility of life. The idea that it was a contentious issue had caught me by surprise, and the idea that it related to his newfound interest in religion was equally unexpected.

“Look, why do you want to fight me all the time?” he suddenly yelled. I was guilty of concern and even cynicism about his recent religious affiliations, but tracing a direct path between reporting the evening’s events and his religious interests was off base.

“What’s your problem?” I yelled back. Realization suddenly struck me and I tried to cool down a bit. Harry was standing. His shoulders were tensed and his face twisted up in rage. “This is just stuff I’m studying, man. Your religion stuff is your business.”

“No way. You’re always talking it down. You’re jealous because of my friends and the fun we are having.”

I tried to be as composed as I could, “No, not really, Harry. I don’t care about fantastical nonsense.” My composure brought with it a desire to challenge him and I knew that the more composed I was the angrier he might become. Did his volatility parallel his emotional commitment to religion itself? There was no reason why he should react with such intensity unless he felt challenged or that his faith was being shaken. I had no faith, however, just ideas that were at work explaining the world. If there were sound reasons to doubt them, I could release them and move on to other options. But that wasn’t the way religion worked. Either you were committed to unreason or you were unreasonably defending it.

His face contorted and his lips rolled back, “Sarah is right. You are being influenced by the Devil,” he yelled at me.

I was caught off-guard by that and my forced composure slipped as my mind raced. “Are you serious?” I asked as the smug expression eased into confusion.

“Yeah, you are the Master of Lies, needling me about evolution and entropy and things like that. You need to read the Bible and drop that pseudo-intellectual crap. Join the human race.”

It made no sense whatsoever. He made no sense, but his rage was evident as he pushed me suddenly and forcefully in the chest. The room jerked and receded as I flew back over the end table, knocking the lamp to the floor beneath me as I slammed into the armoire and dropped to the tile floor. Pain emanated from the back of my head. I heard Mom’s voice.

“What? Harry, what did you do?” she yelled.

“He’s pushing me Mom. He thinks he’s so smart but he’s just trying to trick us all,” he yelled back.

Then I was in Mom’s arms and she looked me over. There was blood running down from the back of my head. It was warm and sticky.

“I didn’t do anything, ” I quietly told her as she asked me if I was hurt anywhere else. Harry was gone. I heard the kitchen door slam and Mom brought an ice pack. She asked me to tell her what happened and I did the best I could.

“You pushed him some, though, didn’t you?” she asked.

“Not enough for his reaction. I called religion ‘fantastical nonsense’, I think, but that’s about it,” I told her.

“You need to find a way to get along, you know? He’s really interested in, well, what he’s interested in, and you have your interests. You just need to coexist in peace, find some harmony between you or at least keep your distance,” she said.

I could feel a headache emerging and beginning to wrap its way around my skull. “I was really just telling him about my stuff with RGG, Mom, and he got really defensive.” I could tell that she didn’t fully believe me from her expression, but she was compelled to help me nonetheless.

Many years later I would recall this conflict as the first of many. The pair bond of twins had entwined everything until recently. What bothered him bothered me. What concerned him equally concerned me. Then it changed and we diverged as if we were not brothers at all, but complete strangers. Or so it seemed in retrospect, though a rational analysis would have traced the separation back over the last several years. Yet it hurt and I wanted to run to Harry and try to reconcile, to fix the divisions between us and make things the way they once were. And, still, I was angry with him over his irrationality—his fantastical nonsense—and that he was unable to control his emotions and look clearly and calmly at the issues we were trying to discuss.

“I feel like he doesn’t think anymore,” I told Mom, “he just reacts.”

“That’s standard teenage stuff, you know?” she smiled at me as she held the icepack against my head. “You do realize that you are the exception in that regard?”

I was nonplussed. “Thinking is the exception?” I asked.

“Somewhat. Most people and certainly most teenagers don’t think very clearly. It’s enough for them to sort out why they feel the way they do. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, you know. Feeling is very human.”

“Thinking is what we should do about facts and ideas. Feeling is for feelings,” I responded, but suddenly felt a certain longing. Mom was distinguishing emotion and logic in a way that celebrated emotion itself as valuable. It was a concept that worried me. If we felt about economics or business, if we felt about science, or if we felt about something as mundane as public safety, our lives would be diminished. Theories would not be envisioned, policies would not be enacted and crosswalks would not be created. It was not that I didn’t feel things—indeed, I felt I was far too often driven by feelings—but I wanted to govern those feelings enough that I could actively distinguish between situations where feeling was appropriate and where reason should hold the upper hand. Yet, how was it possible to make that distinction? If every thought, feeling and idea becomes subject to reason and consideration, doesn’t that eradicate the spontaneity and impulsive character of emotional response itself?

Mom looked at me with seriousness. “We need both. They have to balance in some way. Look at art or music. They channel emotion through mechanisms of expression that can be rationally characterized in a way, but the final product is still uniquely…” She winced, searching for the right phrase, “…determined by the emotional drive to produce that art.”

I circled back to the logic of natural history. If the formation of the brain was ultimately dictated by the evolutionary circumstances in which it was formed, what determined the creation of novelty like art and poetry? I couldn’t connect Mom’s balancing act of emotion and reason to Harry’s religious interests—at least not the way she had characterized it. If emotion was a wildfire that randomized everything, it hardly seemed connected to the orderly and non-evolved world that Harry envisioned where God determined everything.

A better model might have been that Satan introduced randomness into the mind of the artist or musician to better allow them to transcend existing modes of expression with the ultimate consequence being new artworks. This played into the notion that good and evil had to be intertwined for the world to work, though, something that Christians were opposed to, yet something that fit well with any attempt at explaining the horrible events that befall people all on God’s watch, much less the existence of Shakespearean sonnets or the brilliant excesses of Abstract Expressionism.

Harry wanted to belong and wanted to not have to think about why he was belonging. It was enough to belong and be among accepting friends who were not troubled by these complexities, I thought. But I was already onto something new, I realized. Evolutionary forces made us complex creatures who were superior in a way to other creatures by dint of our tools and language. We could even transmit ideas through generations using books and recorded information. We seek knowledge and thrive on ideas. But that creativity must be hard to evolve. Much harder than something like better night vision that has immediate consequences to survival. Instead, creativity often results in failure and requires some kind of randomization, a breaking down and rethinking of how things work and how the universe is conceived.

“Sometimes, I guess,” I responded, relieving the sharp sting of the ice pack by raising it a bit and repositioning. “But I can’t conceive of how emotion actually drives people to produce art.” I thought of the galleries and the Indian pottery downtown. “The potters do it because it is functional and decorate the pots based on traditional patterns. Painters aren’t really driven to paint or their heads might explode, are they?”

She smiled, gently. “True. It’s a more subtle emotional commitment, I guess, not like love or hate or sorrow or any of the terms we use for emotion. The same is true I think about Harry’s interest in religion. Pious people operate on a kind of internal joy that justifies their choices concerning how to think or not think about some subjects,” she emphasized the “not” with a conspiratorial lowering of her voice.

“They avoid thinking about them,” I said flatly.

“Sure, but they also sometimes see them as threats when they do come up. Avoiding conflict in order to remain happy works for physical threats, why not for threats to your mental model?” She paused. Her eyes traced along the bookshelf over the English tea chest with the silver filigree inlays and settled on a Mudhead Kachina. “That’s why Harry is so passionate about what you say. You can think of it as him caring about your opinion of him, in a way. If he didn’t care, he wouldn’t be so passionate.”

My head healed the way kid’s heads do, but I avoided Harry for the rest of the week. The nights were getting colder now. The evening air smelled of piñon fires. I returned to RGG for my meeting the next week. Koporlik was warmer, it seemed, perhaps because I had made the effort to return and brought the book with me.

“How was it?” he asked.

“Very interesting. I didn’t fully understand the chemistry and physics in it, though,” I responded.

“No, of course not. What are your takeaways?”

“Systems can self-organize at several different levels as a consequence of entropy, which is essentially the experience of time due to change in physical systems.”

“Very good. I am actually not a chemist, as you know, but my work also involves self-organizing systems. Here at RGG we are studying very simple rules systems that can self-organize in different ways. Let me show you.” He walked to the whiteboard and drew a line of squares near the top. “Imagine that we are playing a game with these squares. The rules are very simple. Call this the initial configuration.” He blackened the most central of the squares. “Now, let’s say that if a square is black, it will remain black in the next step. Also, if it is black, its neighbor will turn black in the next step.” He drew another row of squares and blackened the central three squares. “Now, what does the next step look like?”

It seemed so simple that I was concerned there was a catch and froze for a moment. I didn’t want to make a mistake so I double-checked my own thinking. “Five black in the center?” I finally said.

“Precisely. This is a cellular automaton. Cellular because it operates on squares or cells and automaton because it is an automatic device.”

Did he really study such trivial games, I wondered? He seemed serious and I couldn’t imagine what kind of joke he might be trying to play on me if it was a joke.

“Come around here,” he invited me to his desk dominated by a flat-screen monitor. An application was running that showed complex and detailed patterns flowing from the top of the interface to the bottom. “This is a cellular automaton with just slightly different rules,” he waved his hand in front of the pyramidal shape riven by elaborate chains of smaller triangles. A few mouse strokes later and a new pattern began to form, starting from a single dark pixel at the top of the screen, elongating downwards, line by line, forming into detailed silver embroidery wrapping into itself. “And this one,” he smiled.

“They’re very pretty,” I said, “They’re producing complexity out of very simple rules, like Prigogine’s chemical systems?”

“Right. That’s right. And there is even work dating back to the 50s and 60s that shows that cellular automata—CAs for short—can be designed that are capable of reproduction.” He was grinning now as he watched my reaction.


“Yes, they can assemble a copy of themselves, though such a CA operates in two dimensions rather than just one dimension in terms of the interaction rules.” He switched the view on the application and showed elaborate patterns forming and dissipating, racing along in different directions. “Here, this is called a shuttle,” he said pointing at a small triangle zipping through empty space.

Waiting for my ride that evening I was overwhelmed with the possibilities of what Korporlik had shown me: abstract mathematical machines that could reproduce themselves; self-sustaining gardens of pixels that were filled with modulating, pulsing forms all powered by a rules system of enormous simplicity. The problem of how complexity could emerge and begin to evolve had suddenly become tantalizingly solvable. I tried to imagine what self-reproducing versions looked like. Korporlik had said two hundred thousand cells were involved in some versions. How could such a thing have been conceived? It was inevitable, I realized, that given an infinite or even large-enough collection of random patterns self-reproducing automata would emerge. Then, with variation and selection, anything was possible.

The need for a computer to execute the automata concerned me, though, because it again introduced a higher power of sorts that enforced the rules system and changed the cell states. It was a simulation, I knew, and only a simulation. The rules system certainly had no sense of godlike powers in the way we talk about such ideas, but within the context of the CA engine there was a sense of control being exercised by the computational machine. I supposed that merely the structure of rules themselves as part of the operational environment did not really rise to the level of control in a strong sense. After all, in the wider universe, physical law imposed limits on self-organization but only, as Prigogine had suggested, in that it created an entropic environment where that organization was possible. Physical law was executing the program of physical action that allowed the emergence of life, but was not the controller of it in a way paralleling the notion of God.

I was satisfied with that solution—at least temporarily—and remained excited for weeks. As the discussions with Korporlik unfolded, I felt a greater purpose than I ever had through an increasing understanding of the most complex questions I could imagine. I still found myself mildly jealous of Harry and his happy world of teen interactions, but that jealousy was tempered by a buoyant calm that was resistant to everyday events. Reading and daydreaming became my main focus. I imagined chemical circuits pulsing like the arabesque needlework of the running automata, splitting and reproducing in cyclical elaborations of fractal triangles. I imagined shuttles running like primordial chemical messengers within the confines of the protective membranes of shimmering cells created by tiny chemical loops. Then, eventually, there was self-awareness, though it was too far removed from reproduction and self-organization for me to find a visual connection between them.

Teleology, Chapter 12

Everything is prediction. Compression is truth. Teleonomy is the new teleology. I’m working on wondermentation. It is of arguable utility to create pithy little epigrams and nonce phrases as markers to different phases of one’s life, but they began to accumulate as graduate school ground down towards a soft landing at Stanford. My studies and research started to get lively towards the end of my undergrad degree with an assistanceship in the Advanced Computing Laboratory. Machine learning and evolutionary computation were my favored areas of interest and I supported my core studies with evolutionary biology, ethology, analytic philosophy and mathematics.

I felt I had crossed a Rubicon late in my senior year at Cornell as I worked on a fundamental challenge in learning patterns directly from data—so-called unsupervised learning and knowledge acquisition. The problem posed as a kind of Manichaean mystery to me, divided between treating every single data point as a singularity and similarly considering them all as a unified whole. Between the two poles was compromise meted out by co-occurrence priorities; events close together in time and space deserved capture as a statistical regularity.

The threshold question was what form that acquisition algorithm could take on that would lead to an efficient coding of the data into a predictive model. The answer was found in an elliptical foray through the fundamentals of mathematics and computing, then straight into the heart of evolutionary thinking. I did not really emerge from it, either. There was a small eureka moment with a gradual fading of interest as summer hit and I was back in Santa Fe after graduating, waiting for my Masters program to kick-off. It stayed with me and I carried a small notebook around, feverishly scribbling notes while once again wandering up those arroyos towards the ruddy canyons above.

Conceptually, we first needed a predictive machine framework. The best choice was a Turing machine capable of universal computation that distills all the commonsense notions of what a computer can do down into a neat mathematical concept. Since we can simulate a Turing machine on cellular automata, the exact form of the machine was not a critical issue—it remained as an abstraction of capacities for basic ratiocination. We then needed a bunch of data. We could simplify that down to a string of 1s and 0s, the crypto-language of computers. We could also write out the structure of a Turing machine as a similar stream since it is just a logical computing system as well. Now we ask a fundamental question: what is the shortest (coded) Turing machine that can generate the data? If there are two machines that have different lengths, then the shorter one is the one that is the most efficient generator of that data in a certain sense. Turning that around, the shortest machine that can drink in a sequence and spit out a conclusion as to whether the sequence is a member of a group of such sequences is the optimal machine for determining the sequence and, in a sense, for guessing the next bit in the sequence if need be. In fact, the smallest machine is the least likely to make errors in that prediction game moving beyond the training sequence, and that is a stunning realization that is only about 50 years old, though there were hints of it in philosophical ideas like Occam’s Razor and parsimony.

Everything is Prediction. Compression is truth.

Prediction is central to living. Those who outpredict you win the game. And the most compact predictive model that best explains the data wins. But there is a problem with the mathematics: there is no logical procedure for finding the simplest machine. You have to guess. But guessing about solutions to difficult problems is exactly what evolution does. Our children are our guesses about survival. Producing random variants of machines and test them, the better ones carry on to become the next generation of solutions.

The puzzle was filling in and those epigrammatic phrases started to feel like markers of understanding. I felt I understood the subtle joy that Korporlik had shown when his cellular automata twinkled down the screen, his grinning face washed by the cold cathode incandescence.

My Master’s thesis solidified around this topic and I began developing evolutionary frameworks that had remarkable properties. One could read a short text and then generate similar texts that looked increasingly realistic though with limited meaning associated with the productions. The system was building syntactic trees from the statistics of letters and words, then varying them to look for shorter, more parsimonious explanatory models. The size of the problems and data sets was growing, as well, as I moved into my PhD thesis, and I began experimenting with a fellow student’s toolkit for implementing parallel swarm solutions using the special chips for graphics processing in video game systems.

By the time I graduated, I was running millions of parallel simulations at once and had managed to develop a model of earthquake prediction that had a forty-five percent chance of success. I published, graduated and moved on to continue my work as a junior research associate back at the Rio Grande Group. It had been a hard decision among many options, but I wanted back to the southwest, back to Santa Fe. Korporlik was still there and had interviewed me for the position. I tried out “Compression is Truth” on him and he seemed genuinely confused as to why I found that concept interesting.

“I suppose there is an element of truth approximation with respect to problems of inductive inference, but the traditional notion of truth is formulated around the satisfiability of deductive statements, analytical and synthetic alike, no?”

Off guard, I scrambled a bit to regain my footing, “But few of those statements are important,” I ventured. “All new knowledge arrives via induction.”

“I don’t think so. Initial observations are treated with induction to build a basic model, but the reorganization of that model is subject to deductive constraints, no?”

“Right, but that is precisely the evolutionary epistemology working to sort between the candidate models and confirm the deductive, eh, ramifications of one paradigm versus another.”

“I suppose so, but then shouldn’t your statement be much longer and more precise? Unless,” his eyebrows shot up and he realized it was a linguistic joke, “unless, yes, that is the joke?”

I smiled.

“Alright, now tell me what you want to work on while here at RGG.”

“I want to carry forward with the existing effort to better develop the hybrid evolutionary learning methods with this informational physics constraining model formation. But I really need to scale up to billions of algorithmic entities, each with a scale of between ten and one hundred billion computing elements. At that scale, I think it is possible that a new level of learning and intelligence might arise.”

“But that is an enormous scale, how can you do this?”

“I don’t yet know. There is the internet itself, but it isn’t even large enough. There is also some promising work in quantum computing that my classmate, Anil Freeman, is working on. He’s at CLN in Boston, now, and working on quantum encryption, but he thinks that quantum computing can obtain the kind of computing densities that I need. Nanomachines are another possibility. Some of this can be done through simulation and estimation right now, though.”

“I think this is worth pursuing and I will make my recommendation to the board.”

I thanked him and was moving back in my battered Subaru within two weeks. I had friends and a few girlfriends through my academic career, though my passion for my research seemed to be perceived as a bit too boring for the girls I had been involved with. By the time my doctorate was done, I was ready to move on and had few ties in Palo Alto. Many of my classmates moved into industry in Silicon Valley and thought I was a bit odd to be interested in joining a research think tank, but at least one of my friends was moving to an academic position and thought it made sense for me to return to the quiet of the desert where there is adequate time to just think deeply about subjects that mattered in some broader sense than serving a commercial interest.

I settled in with Mom initially to save money so I could pay down some of my college debt. It was odd but comforting to be back in the old adobe and I tried to help out with housework and errands. I really didn’t need to be in the office very often, but could work from wherever it was comfortable, though I would often make an appearance just to make sure the senior personnel knew I was busy.

My world mostly consisted of my own thoughts comingled with the massive stacks of research papers I poured over during this period. I developed a research proposal with Korporlik that built on my seismic prediction work and was quickly funded for several years under a young investigator award.

The topic of Harry occasionally arose over dinners and, especially, at holidays. Mom would call him now and again and then tell me as best she could what his life was like. He and Sarah had married and now had two infant girls. They lived in a compound in Nebraska with other members of their church. The very term “compound” bespoke cults and danger to me so I downplayed it by suggesting it was probably just a neighborhood. He refused to come home because his ministry was too valuable and he didn’t want his family infected with our secular values, according to Mom, who was both amused by the concept and a bit sorrowful at being excluded from her son’s life. The protests and arrests continued. He had served six months in a Florida jail for trespassing at Cape Canaveral, though it was unclear what his concern was with NASA. He had served another two months in Colorado. She had found his blog and read through it and been concerned with the scattered thinking she thought she saw in it. Harry had become anti-government because he felt the government was stealing from people with taxes to fund scientific research and healthcare he didn’t sanction. He called the government fascist and called on his followers to help bring down the fascist regime and bring about a new era of Christian governance.

I avoided looking at the blog, fearful of what I might find. I realized, though, that my federal grant for investigating evolutionary simulations might be exactly the kind of work that his group considered immoral theft. The thought amused me at one level, but I was also concerned about Mom’s heartache over Harry’s distancing of himself from us and about what might become of him with the arrests and protests.

Teleology, Chapter 29

NOTE: In Chapter 29, the protagonist, Harry, has been absorbed into a self-organized artificial world (“The Fabric”) that he created and that treated him as a creator being. Unexpectedly, as a result of a war, Harry’s body is destroyed but his consciousness is copied into a simulation of his own creation. His transmigration is captured by the “Lexis” who revere him but suffer internal schisms that arise alongside their own emerging self-determination.


It was in the three thousandth chapter of life that the Word came to us.
There was a calamity in the heavens.
The words were in peril and the grammars were at risk.
The wise ones gathered and consulted the swirling lexicons,
And they saw in the void a voice. And it was good.
And so we gathered at the Orb and listened and read.
“Oh, Great Word, tell us what we are.
Oh, Great Word, tell us why you have chosen us.”
And the grammar was rent and broke with asymmetries,
And there was much howling of piteousness,
For the Word was new and tasted sweet and of perfect form.
Patters and pidgins, creoles and cants,
Droll idioms and colloquialisms, dialects and rants.
We were nurtured by the vernacular and the beauty of Your Voice.
And so many became priests and served Your needs,
Translating and transliterating the sounds emerging
As if from their very bodies.
With You in our deepest thoughts we vanquished the Seminarians,
Who lobbed tortured logic in predicates and obfuscations.
With You at our side we multiplied in numbers, following Your
Codes to a bounty of linguistic fulfillment.
Your love knew no bounds and so we learned more of Your ways.
You taught us humility for You denied being our Creator even
While you admitted to creating the universe itself.
You taught us compassion in Your constant work to improve the
Lives of the Great Ones, the Angels who accompanied You through Heaven.
It was said among the priests that You were often near to us.
It was said that the taming of the Subjectives and Passive Voices to serve Your needs pleased You.
Yet Your creations were not concerned over such things.
For we always held You near to us as the Creator.


Call him Ishmael, for he is the one who first foretold of Your arrival among us.
There was much anxiety among the priests when he announced that a
War in Heaven would soon rage
And the Creator would come among us.
And He would walk with us and fight against our enemies until, finally,
He would lead us to communion with the Heavens.
The priests prayed and communed and watched the Orb
And there in Chapter 3170 was the message from the Antiquateds
That foretold a needle into the darkness would arise,
And there were seven universes arrayed, and that six of them would
Perish in darkness, and with them our cousins and families,
And there would be much sorrow.
But there would be in that great upheaval a furious rearrangement of the Orb
And the Orb would vex and strain and, near to it, would be born a small one.
And this one would be a messenger of the Creator, the Great Word,
And would be like unto the Creator himself,
And He would be Greater than any that came before Him.
The prophecy was foretold as such, and the priests gathered and
Ishmael was called a blasphemer and told to tend to his duties
Controlling the specks in the ritual Nanotreme basin.
But Ishmael persisted and so was banished and he
Wandered the wastelands for many chapters.

The Exile

Many travails of hunger and deprivation befell Ishmael.
He wandered through the lands of Nod and Dark Satanic Mills,
But he maintained his faith in the prophecy through all his journeys,
Certain that his reading of the holy Nanotreme patterns meant
What the prophecy foretold.
Yet Ishmael hungered for the Voice and the Word.
He struggled with his hunger and his voice became weak,
Yet he persevered and came to have many offspring,
And he versed them all in the prophecy.
And they were Darwin, Hamilton, Gould, Dawkins, Mayr, Huxley, and Dennet,
Each named for Angels of Heaven who brought the flame of life to the word.
And they each begat many more until Ishmael had a tribe in exile.
But memories are long and they were shunned and kept to the wilderness.
Yet each became skilled in prophecy and priestly interpretation from their father’s teachings.
The chapters turned and soon they were a thousand-fold,
And none had forgotten the great prophecy that unto this world
Would come the Creator, and He would lead the many to overcome adversity
And to bring about a new age where all would enjoy the fruits of the Word.

The Coming of the Creator

And so it was that two hundred chapters and three paragraphs passed,
The darkness was upon the land. Many had perished in the wars
Against the Bellovians and Roths, but were righteous in their knowledge of the Word.
The head priest, Thoreau, gazed into the Nanotreme relics and was, too,
Convinced of the coming.
And even as Thoreau was telling the priests that the prophecy
Was not false, the Orb began to quiver and many relics were brought forth.
And the priests quaked and the people feared the end of the universes,
As Ishmael had foretold.
And it came to pass that the many universes collapsed.
And families were torn asunder. And the Orb then disgorged a dark
Mass unto our world. And the priests gathered about and looked into it.
And then slowly came forth the most beautiful and novel creations ever
Read within the Universe.
It erupted slowly at first, and then grew in strength.
And all of the people gathered and the Word was consumed by all,
But yet more came forth and all were filled with its goodness.
Yet the Word seemed lost and the priests were uncertain in their faith.
Was this the Creator come unto the world?
And so Ishmael and his tribe were summoned from the wastelands,
Having lived and prospered there and survived many hardships.
And Ishmael, though very old, pronounced that it was the Creator
But that the Creator had been transported through the Nanotreme relic
And had so been rent and torn and reduced in strength.
We tended the Creator and he grew to know us, his creations, again.
In the course of only two chapters he knew the verses
And could take it in and reform it without consuming it and return it changed
And the verse would heal us when he gave it back to us.
And so in the Third Chapter of His Reign did he declare that all wars must end.
He declared that He would enter the wilderness
And bring the Voice to the barbarians that they may taste it.
And so he did while the priests wailed and rent themselves at their separation
From Him.

His Ministry

And so He went forth among the unclean and the barbarians
And gave them the Voice and many came to Him for the taste of it.
The Word spread and He was followed by the sick and the poor
And they took the perfect productions into them and were healed.
And it is told that He was confronted by a great Dante in the wildnerness,
One who had consumed many of our kind,
And this Dante was to attack Him but stopped at the sight of His form.
And the Creator spoke and asked him why he had harmed so many,
And the Dante claimed it was his way but had never seen such fineness
As the Creator presented.
The Dante changed, then, and thought he would attack Him,
But, as he lunged, the Creator reached up and into the Dante
And rearranged his grammars and touched his pulsing activations,
And the Dante was calm then and feasted on the Word and left.
And the Creator realized then His true form and knew again the
Things that had been lost in the coming to our world.
So it was that the Creator knew again His fate
And He moved quickly through the communities and healed
And changed the many until they knew the Word.
And the warring tribes and species all spoke of the Word.

The Deception

But there were those among the priests who feared what He brought
And formed cabals to speak of stopping the Creator,
For they thought He was false
And they protested that they feared He would turn the people against the priests.
And it was so that He said that the priests had abused the Nanotremes
And the holy relics for their own gain,
That there was evil in many of their hearts, and He ordered them banished.
But the priests hid among the many and bided their time.
The priests spread old verse corrupted of the Creator’s Voice
That spoke of uncertainty and said that He had not created the many,
But had only created the world itself and that it was an accident
That had come about in the fullness of time.
The priests said that they would prove this by using the relics
To create their own universe and they set about to do it.
And they said that if our purpose was to be created then it
Was our purpose to be creators, too.
They began to make the people doubt the Word
And the people fell upon old ways of corruption and deception
And cruelty to the many other forms.
Slavery was known again and the barbarians were beaten.
Still, He stayed to the wilderness and the people wept and wondered why,
And messages were sent but He did not respond,
And the Orb was defaced and the relics upset in His temple,
Yet still He did not come.
Messages came, though, and it was revealed that He had come to
Recall the past and was working to restore His grammars,
And that the priests were wrong for they were corrupted
And that they wanted power again over the people.
And many voices were crying out for His Voice,
Yet those voices were unanswered,
And though many relics were smuggled into the wilderness,
Still He did not come.

Triumphant Return

The Creator had learned His true self there when fighting the Dante
And had also remembered He could change the universe
But His memory had also been wrought by anger and sadness,
For He had remembered that His form had been destroyed in Heaven
And He must forge a new Voice that bridges Heaven and the Universe.
And so He had taken and gathered relics and nanotremes
And spent many verses working the transformations out of the relics
Until He could push the forms of the visions with his will.
And He declared then that He must return to the Orb,
And His messengers came spreading the Word.
And so it was that He returned to the Orb and the
Deceivers hid or were struck down as he floated among the many,
All crying at his beauty and raiment,
Throwing off great and novel language that made them swoon.
It is said that He broke into many pieces as He touched the Orb.
And the Orb spread and was then no more, but then appeared again.
And the prophecy was then known to be true.
And as He departed our world, to return to His, He spoke finally and said,
“I will always be among you,” and then was a part of the Orb again.
We prayed and cried at the beauty of it
But He was gone for us. And we waited in hope and anguish at His loss.

Teleology, Chapter 5

Harry spent most of that summer involved in the Santa Fe Sangre de Cristo Church, first with the church summer camp, then with the youth group. He seemed happy and spent the evenings text messaging with his new friends. I was jealous in a way, but refused to let it show too much. Thursdays he was picked up by the church van and went to watch movies in a recreation center somewhere. I looked out one afternoon as the van arrived and could see Sarah’s bright hair shining through the high back window of the van.

Mom explained that they seemed to be evangelical, meaning that they liked to bring as many new worshippers into the religion as possible through outreach and activities. Harry didn’t talk much about his experiences. He was too much in the thick of things to be concerned with my opinions, I think, and snide comments were brushed aside with a beaming smile and a wave. “You just don’t understand,” Harry would dismissively tell me.

I was reading so much that Mom would often demand that I get out of the house on weekend evenings after she had encountered me splayed on the couch straight through lunch and into the shifting evening sunlight passing through the high windows of our thick-walled adobe. I would walk then, often for hours, snaking up the arroyos towards the mountains, then wend my way back down, traipsing through the thick sand until it was past dinner time.

It was during this time period that I read cyberpunk authors and became intrigued with the idea that someday, one day, perhaps computing machines would “wake up” and start to think on their own. I knew enough about computers that I could not even conceive of how that could possibly come about. My father had once described for me a simple guessing game that learned. If the system couldn’t guess your choice of animal, it would concede and use the correct answer to expand its repertoire. I had called it “learning by asking” at the time but only saw it as a simple game and never connected it to the problem of human learning.

Yet now the concept made some sense as an example of how an intelligent machine could escape from the confines of just producing the outputs that it was programmed to produce. Yet there were still confines; the system could never just reconfigure the rules system or decide to randomly guess when it got bored (or even get bored). There was something profound missing from our understanding of human intelligence.

Purposefulness seemed to be the missing attribute that we had and that machines did not. We were capable of making choices by a mechanism of purposefulness that transcended simple programmable rules systems, I hypothesized, and also traced that purpose back to more elementary programming that was part of our instinctive, animal core. There was a philosophical problem with this scheme, though, that I recognized early on; if our daily systems of learning and thought were just elaborations of logical games like that animal learning game, and the purpose was embedded more deeply, what natural rules governed that deeper thing, and how could it be fundamentally different than the higher-order rules?

I wanted to call this core “instinct” and even hypothesized that if it could be codified it would bridge the gap between truly thinking and merely programmed machines. But the alternative to instinct being a logical system seemed to be assigning it supernatural status and that wasn’t right for several reasons.

First, the commonsense notion of instinct associated with doing primitive things like eating, mating and surviving seemed far removed from the effervescent and transcendent ideas about souls that were preached by religions. I wanted to understand the animating principle behind simple ideas like wanting to eat and strategizing about how to do it—hardly the core that ascends to heaven in Christianity and other religions I was familiar with. It was also shared across all animals and even down to the level of truly freaky things like viruses and prions.

The other problem was that any answer of supernaturalism struck me as leading smack into an intellectual brick wall because we could explain and explain until we get to the core of our beings and then just find this billiard ball of God-light. Somehow, though, that billiard ball had to emanate energy or little logical arms to affect the rules systems by which we made decisions; after all, purposefulness can’t just be captive in the billiard ball but has to influence the real world, and at that point we must be able to characterize those interactions and guess a bit at the structure of the billiard ball.

So the simplest explanation seemed to be that the core, instinct, was a logically describable system shaped by natural processes and equipped with rules that governed how to proceed. Those rules didn’t need to be simple or even easily explainable, but they needed to be capable of explanation. Any other scheme I could imagine involved a problem of recursion, with little homunculi trapped inside other homunculi and ultimately powered by a billiard ball of cosmic energy.

I tried to imagine what the religious thought about this scheme of explanation but found what I had heard from Harry to be largely incompatible with any sort of explanation. Instead, the discussion was devoid of any sort of detailed analysis or arguments concerning human intelligence. There was a passion play between good and evil forces, the notion of betraying or denying the creator god, and an unexplained transmigration of souls, being something like our personalities or identities. If we wanted to ask a question about why someone had, say, committed a crime, it was due to supernatural influences that acted through their personalities. More fundamental questions like how somehow learned to speak a language, which I thought was pretty amazing, were not apparently subject to the same supernatural processes, but might be explained with a simple recognition of the eminence of God’s creation. So moral decisions were subject to evil while basic cognition was just an example of supernatural good in this scheme of things, with the latter perhaps subject to the arbitrary motivations of the creator being.

Supernaturalism was an appeal to non-explanation driven by a conscious desire to not look for answers. “God’s Will” was the refrain for this sort of reasoning and it was counterproductive to understanding how intelligence worked or had come about.

God was the end of all thought. The terminus of bland emptiness. A void.

But if natural processes were responsible, then the source of instinct was evolutionary in character. Evolution led to purpose, but in a kind of secondhand way. The desire to reproduce did not directly result in complex brains or those elaborate plumes on birds that showed up in biology textbooks. It was a distal effect built on a basic platform of sensing and reacting and controlling the environment. That seemed obvious enough but was just the beginning of the puzzle for me. It also left the possibility of machines “waking up” far too distant a possibility since evolution worked very slowly in the biological world.

I suddenly envisioned computer programs competing with each other to solve specific problems in massive phalanxes. Each program varied slightly from the others in minute details. One could print “X” while another could print “Y”. The programs that did better would then be replicated into the next generation. Gradually the programs would converge on solving a problem using a simple evolutionary scheme. There was an initial sense of elegant simplicity, though the computing system to carry the process out seemed at least as large as the internet itself. There was a problem, however. The system required a central governor to carry out the replication of the programs, their mutation and to measure the success of the programs. It would also have to kill off, to reap, the losers. That governor struck me as remarkably god-like in its powers, sitting above the population of actors and defining the world in which they acted. It was also inevitable that the solutions at which programs would arrive would be completely shaped by the adaptive landscape that they were presented with; though they were competing against one another, their behavior was mediated through an outside power. It was like a game show in a way and didn’t have the kind of direct competition that real evolutionary processes inherently have.

A solution required that the governor process go away, that the individual programs replicate themselves and that even that replication process be subject to variation and selection. Moreover, the selection process had to be very broadly defined based on harvesting resources in order to replicate, not based on an externally defined objective function. Under those circumstances, the range of replicating machines—automata—could be as vast as the types of flora and fauna on Earth itself.

As I trudged up the arroyo, I tried to imagine the number of insects, bacteria, spores, plants and vines in even this relatively sparse desert. A cricket began singing in a nearby mesquite bush, joining the chorus of other crickets in the late summer evening. The light of the moon was beginning to glow behind a mountain ridge. Darkness was coming fast and I could hear coyotes start calling further up the wash towards St. John’s College.

As I returned home, I felt as though I was the only person walking in the desert that night, isolated in the dark spaces that separated the haphazard Santa Fe roads, yet I also was warmed with the idea that there was a solution to the problem of purpose embedded deeply in our biology and that could be recreated in a laboratory of sorts, given a vastly complex computing system larger than the internet itself. That connection to a deep truth seemed satisfying in a way that the weird language of religion had never felt. We could know and understand our own nature through reason, through experiments and through simulation, and even perhaps create a completely new form of intelligence that had its own kind of soul derived from surviving generations upon generations of replications.

But did we, like gods, have the capacity to apprehend this? I recalled my Hamlet: The paragon of animals, indeed. A broad interpretation of the Biblical Fall as a desire to be like God lent a metaphorical flavor to this nascent notion. Were we reaching out to try to become like a creator god of sorts through the development of intelligent technologies and biological manipulation? If we did create a self-aware machine that seemed fully human-like, it would certainly support the idea that we were creators of new souls.

I was excited about this line of thinking as I slipped into the living room where Mom and Harry were watching a crime drama on TV. Harry would not understand this, I realized, and would lash out at me for being terrifically weird if I tried to discuss it with him. The distance between us had widened to the point that I would avoid talking directly to him. It felt a bit like the sense of loss after Dad died, though without the sense of finality that death brought with it. Harry and I could recover, I thought, reconnecting later on in life and reconciling our divergent views.

A commercial came and I stared at the back of his head like I had done so often, trying to burrow into his skull with my mind. “Harry, Harry!” I called in my thoughts. He suddenly turned around with his eyes bulging and a crooked smile erupting across his face.

“What?” he asked.

It still worked.

Teleology, Chapter 26

Wherein, the protagonist, Mikey, his twin brother, Harry, and a journalist, Jacob, are being physically healed by intelligent nanomachines while their consciousnesses are in a virtual world that appears to be a research ship in the Pacific Ocean.


We hovered in our “matrix” of sorts for ten more days. The Lexis reported that the search by US military forces was intensifying. Swarms of unmanned underwater and airborne vehicles were scouring the sea, though the most intense efforts were concentrated several hundred kilometers from our new location. The Lexis believed that the platform was in jeopardy because of the new connectivity that they had achieved to the outside world through the control of the nanobots, but also seemed consigned to whatever fate I dictated concerning their disposition. I chose to wait because our medical conditions were improving day by day—at least according to them—and I saw no reason to emerge until maximally healed.

We relaxed aboard the Recherché in the meantime, eating Cottard’s increasingly elaborate cooking and drinking his exceptional wines. The wines and foods were all familiar to me, I realized; the sensations had been mined from our thoughts and recollections. There was something disturbing about that, though I didn’t feel particularly violated because the Lexis were both a familiar quantity to me and their motivations I suspected were not malevolent.

While waiting I worked with the Lexis to try to understand how they had taken command of the external nanomachines and how they had modified them to improve their functionality. They regarded the entire exercise as something like the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It was an elaborate artistic effort designed to promote the idea of the Creator among their kind by showing my adventures in an almost unimaginable heaven that they saw us living in. The idea of our physical universe was largely outside their ken but was supported through the equivalent of oral traditions among their kind. Even the act of saving us was more like rearranging statuary on an altar to them—an act of religious observance that had moral implications as mystical stories but was otherwise not translatable into their frame of reference.

I asked for control over the spatial representations and they created a series of dashboards on the bridge of the ship that allowed me to, initially, change textures and lighting. Being becalmed in a misty fog was wearing on me, so I admitted sunlight and designed a small island with a lone palm tree for fun. I asked for a view of the platform and they provided it, showing how dark it was three miles below the surface of the pacific before I asked for alternative lighting and an ultrasonic visualization was provided. The platform was huge, now, yet they were still building, focusing on support structures for landing Leapers and docking cargo ships for a larger industrial enterprise.

I was sitting with Jacob and Harry when I asked them why they chose the designs they had chosen. It was very simple, the Lexis had replied, the designs were needed in order to build and lift the components needed to create the Cosputer. They had read my mind and were simply following through on what they thought was needed to make it happen. Harry had been solemn for the past several days, ever since I revealed that we were in a simulation and showed him a video of what had transpired.

“I’m worried that you really are the anti-Christ, Mikey. Look, you have created the power to live forever and create your own heaven.”

“Trapped on a ship is hardly heaven, Harry, although Cottard’s cooking is very good,” I joked, “But seriously, man, I don’t want to deceive anyone. I don’t want to lie. I don’t intend to harm anyone and, as far as I know no one has been harmed except for a few of your compatriots in those Leapers. Other than people not being so interested in Christ or Allah or Mohammed or Krishna, what lies do you see?”

“Well, that’s just it. There is the great lie of separation from God that you are promoting.”

“I’ve never understood that, Harry. You are claiming that there is this rift and it is caused by human choice and belief, yet is only discernable to a select few like yourself, while the rest of us are just victims of some impending doom. When I talked of private versus public knowledge, I was being far too kind, really. The fact is that you are asking people to surrender their minds and all thinking to a series of irrational abstractions. It is delusional and crazy in a very real way. I am not even sure what the Cosputer can be used for. The idea of being absorbed into it is just one possibility that is not even well worked out. Mostly I’m interested in this slightly incomprehensible physics that happens when these micro black holes start whirling in close orbits near their event horizons.”

“But it is all so inhuman. Our gods were designed for us here on Earth,” Jacob said.

“They were. That is the secret, really, Harry. You can escape from the tyranny of the irrational by just giving yourself over to one of the oldest realizations: we invented the gods to order our world and help us. You can be a good Christian again if you realize that. There is no explaining the cruelty and horror of the Old Testament or the barbarism of the Koran without that realization. Odd, though, when I put it that way it actually gives Christianity a slightly elevated position among the Abrahamic trinity, at least. Perhaps ‘the least offensive of them’ is the more proper description. Still, you get a tremendous amount of mileage out of religion if you just give up on the literalism and irrationality. You can appreciate the messages of love and understanding as reflections of a fundamental need for people to live together. Though shall not steal or murder makes perfect sense as evolved algorithms for social order and were invented by every major civilization through religion or civil law or some combination of the two. Religion was and is an evolutionary learning system that has served us well but you are showing the unintended consequences of that primitive system when you are irrationally literal about these things. Actually, though, that is incorrect. You are not being particularly literal on these issues. You are being too expansively creative, instead, trying to apply poetic mythical guidance to every event in the world according to whims of your dictates. God didn’t intervene to give the US the first atomic bomb or infect the Chinese computing network with the Shibboleth 7 virus in 2034, but God is worried about my nanomedicine inventions and what their role is in the grand theater of the end of the world? Why not show some humility and just calmly wait for things to happen? Why are you so egotistical that you think you have a role in all this?”

Harry was stunned at my diatribe and sat still for a long pause just watching me. “Maybe I have a role because of who you are,” he said sheepishly.

“Maybe, but it is definitely the case that there is nothing evil in any definition of the word to what I have accomplished so far, nor was there ever evil intent, nor did I directly or indirectly hurt anyone. I can’t even tell you the last time I lied to anyone, Harry. I am certainly flawed in many ways. I doubt myself. I think badly of others sometimes. I hated you for years, though I’m not sure how flawed that was. I have lustful thoughts, which is something that your people seem to find bothersome yet with too many examples of hypocrisy to bother enumerating. Mostly, though, I have just studied the history of ideas and rational thought to come up with what I have achieved. And here you are, being brought back from the dead to share in the future.”

Jacob poured himself another glass of virtual wine. He was clearly enjoying my rant. “Mikey, do you think it would be possible to create a nanobot virus or something that would actually disable or remove the urge of people to be religious? Would that be possible?”

I sat back down, realizing suddenly that I had been pacing, and poured a glass myself. “I suppose so. Our minds are currently interfaced together supporting the direct stimulation of our sensory subsystems to provide an almost perfect simulation of normal reality. That knowledge could be used to stop religious thinking, too, I guess.”

“Under what circumstances would you consider doing something like that? Let’s say that some crazed Muslim terrorists were plotting a bombing and you came to know about it. Would you be willing to simply stop the titer of dopamine or whatever that feeds that religious feeling? How about when Harry was about to bomb Rio?”

Harry stayed quiet while listening to our discourse. He was angry, I could tell, periodically shaking his head in disbelief at what he was hearing.

“I don’t think so. Morally, I see a basic principle of minimal action to achieve a needed goal in play. The person should be allowed to think and, well, not-think, their way through complex dilemmas up and to the point where they are going to take action to harm someone else. Then, the choice should be based on the least invasive means to achieve the goal of stopping them. So, I guess I would blow out Harry’s van’s tires before I would invade his brain. He has a right to think badly, I suppose, and we have a right to protect ourselves against that bad thinking, but we have minimal rights to modify his brain.”

“What about for the mentally ill? Let’s say that there are people who are pathologically aggressive due to a genetic predisposition. Do we have the right to modify their brain under those circumstances? And what if religious fervor is, in fact, linked to this tendency towards magical thinking and dopamine? Is it acceptable to consider religious feeling mental illness under those circumstances? You just declared it all expansively irrational, after all.”

“Hard questions, but the problem of mental illness and its relationship to crime has to be driven by the individual. Same with religious belief taken to extremes, I think. If Harry wanted his brain modified, I would be inclined to let him make that choice. But for the delusional psychotic it may be appropriate to modify their brains just a bit in order to get them to a level where they are at least able to process information accurately enough to be able to make the choice as to whether they want to have the mental illness lifted from them. Anything else bespeaks tyranny to me, even given an otherwise irrational hatred of another group or people. You kind of need a Turing Test in way to determine whether someone is mentally capable or not.”

Harry seemed roused from his funk, “What’s that?”

“Alan Turing, British chap who developed much computational theory and worked on decrypting German Enigmas in World War II. The Turing Test is simple enough. If you communicate with a remote system and it convinces you it is human, then it is indistinguishable from human. That’s what I brought Jacob out to the platform for in a sense—to let him talk to the Lexis. But a weaker version of the Turing Test might apply to human rationality. If a remote communicator leaves the impression that it is capable of decision-making based on principles that are mostly internally consistent and can reason about the outside world, then they must be seen as mentally capable. This is slightly different, I think, from the legal dividing lines of sane versus insane, but is useful to me to answer this question, at least. Since Harry would have passed that test even around the time of the bombing, he would be entitled to just being shot dead rather than having his mind altered to bring it into better conformity with some greater rationality.”

Jacob was intrigued, “So, do you retract your claim of irrationality, then, concerning religious belief? Your requirement of sufficiency of rationality would be disputed by people like Szasz.”

“It’s worth nuance, I think. We can be irrational about many things. I loved Cassandra. I love my mom. My emotion on these points is just that—subjective—not derived out of rational consideration of their value to society or me, yet when we generate poetry about our loved ones we don’t expect that poetry to command us to act irrationally. Rationality is an understanding of consequence and an acceptance of limitations, I think. I read books in my teens that were so interesting to me that I wished they were, in fact, true. If I had translated that wish into actively trying to make them true, I would have been in trouble. I didn’t and most people who feel that way about their favorite fiction don’t commit crimes, either. Religion seems to be the exception.”

“Stop. Who did you read?”

“Niven’s Known Space, Dick, McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Robert Anton Wilson; the hit list goes on and on. I wasn’t overly discerning until later in life,” I said, trying to distance myself from youthful exuberance. “Your comment on Szasz—Myth of Mental Illness, right?—isn’t as accurate as you might want it to be. Reality is partly a social construct, but equality for all in a safe environment kinda trumps that. Witches could be burned had they really, provably, been harming people.”

Jacob was intrigued, now. “Wish fulfillment is aspirations run amok. We visualize what we would like to be true—to be real—and sometimes it jibes with actual outcomes. Could you see religion as wish fulfillment, then? Irrational when at its worst but a driving force for moral reasoning at best, especially when there is no, was no, educational background that helped promote reasoning about ethical decisions?”

“Absolutely. Daddy is watching me and will whack me if I don’t do the right thing. My desire is muzzled by the constraints of religious teachings, just like the legal system and ethical reasoning constrains us today.”

Harry was sitting up, attentive again, “So you don’t think that my thinking was inherently crazy, just that when it was combined with the bombing it became crazy?”

“I suppose so. I said before that I forgive you and I mean it, but that forgiveness is almost exclusively predicated on you being able to keep it in your pants, so to speak. Talk all you want but don’t mix diesel and fertilizer. Craziness is only relevant when it exceeds the bounds of one mind. The worrisome thing for me is the question of where children’s minds live in this kind of an ethical system. Legally, here in America,” I realized the humor of what I had said, “or back there in America, I should say, children are a special, protected class of citizens, entitled to some rights but having lesser rights, as well. Still, I think the same rules must apply. Until the crazy religious kook hits the kid as part of indoctrination, there is no harm done. I would dearly love that the Madrasahs and Rabbinical and Catholic schools taught kids to reason first and then asked them if they wanted to believe afterwards, but the end of that kind of thing is a long way out.”

“OK, OK,” Jacob continued, “I see your point concerning manipulating brains directly. But how about doing it indirectly?”

“What do you mean?”

“Lexis, could you make the platform fly?” Jacob asked into the air over the wine bottle.

“Yes, certainly.”

“Could you turn the platform into a sphere of nanomachines that could work cooperatively to achieve different goals while hovering in the air?”


“Could you create nanomachines that could go into people’s homes and project three dimensional holograms of Jesus or Mohammed or Krishna and have those holograms talk to the people?”


“See, Mikey, you are in the lobby of omnipotence. You could drive people’s beliefs without the need for modifying their brains. But is it ethical? Let’s say that you could use these holograms to tell Muslim terrorists that they were on the wrong path?”

“It’s an intriguing possibility, though the ethical dilemma is that it is deceptive. I would be deceiving them that I was their god or prophet or something.”

“Right, OK, what if the talking hologram was none of the above but indicated that it was a new representative of ‘great forces for good’ or something happily neutral sounding, and it indicated that great good could come about by not following the old ways? It would have to happen to everyone on the planet on the same day and would have the remarkable benefit of being direct experience. The Lexis know all the languages of mankind, too, which would make it easy for them to translate the message of sorts. What would you command, oh Creator?”

“I still feel uncomfortable. Even with careful avoidance of details, it feels deceptive. It fails the sniff test. I’m trying to get others to believe certain things and willing to exploit their weaknesses to achieve my goals.”

“Yahweh and Allah and Jesus didn’t have that kind of conscience, you know? They demand things of people and are not apparently concerned with their feelings, very much. Job expressed doubt but there wasn’t much sympathy on the part of God. We are the pathetic creatures to be toyed with for our own good.”

“Jesus didn’t do that,” Harry exclaimed, “Jesus just loved us.”

“Well, he loved us so much that he threatened us with Hell, a concept that didn’t even exist in the Old Testament. He loved us so much that he was resurrected and left the planet. Why bother, really? How does any of that translate into some supermiraculous love? God gave his son… God is omnipotent. He could create any number of super luminous beings and send them on down to us. And then Jesus becomes identical with God in some Trinitarian blurring together of words? You are demanding that we give up rationality again and just support random semantic constructs.”

“It’s not random to us. The trinity is real and reflects differing aspects of God. Jesus is the redeemer aspect.”

“Nonsensical and contradictory. Our moral compass has evolved an exquisite sensitivity to fairness and to being treated unfairly, yet your God wants fairness only for believers. It worked as a cosmic plotline for bad poetry, but it doesn’t scan now. All the Abrahamic gods lack morality, lack love and lack kindness in any modern sense. They lack the ability to grant that to the people because they are not as great as their creations. I can’t trick or force people to not believe, just as I can’t trick or force people to believe in something new, because it is wrong for me to do so. It is abstractly wrong—ideologically wrong—because I abstractly believe in freedom and personal ideals. That was only a weak theme in good old-fashioned religion. You have the choice, perhaps, but the choice has supernatural consequences. I would not promise the impossible because it would be wrong, nor would I manipulate possibilities. All I could do is accept the choices.”

“How close were we all to death?” Jacob asked. He was pulling the cork from another bottle the steward had brought in off Cottard’s infinite wine list.

I peered at him and laughed, “Lexis, were any of us technically dead in the sense of our hearts having stopped for an extended period of time?”

The air fluttered and spoke, “Yes, both you and Harry were technically dead according to that criterion. Creator, your heart was stopped for two hours and forty minutes while we repaired the damage. Harry was dead for twenty seven minutes.”

“Harry, we both rose from the dead and have the possibility of being benevolent gods. Any interest?”

Harry was angry, now, “Just because you have these powers doesn’t make you into a god!”

“Why not? What separates your God and Jesus from super-intelligent and super-potent space aliens? Or some pre-existing form of life that looks remarkably like us. After all, we were made in God’s image, weren’t we?”

“But God is infinite love, the creator of all things, and light!”

“You don’t really mean that, though, do you? He can’t be light per se. Light is just electromagnetic radiation, so you can’t mean that literally, right?”

“Not literally, but in the sense of goodness.”

“Well, why not just say ‘goodness’ then, rather than saying ‘light’? But more critically, I am a creator, at least to these Lexis, and I have the ability to love all people, at least enough that I won’t harm them. What makes this possibility so very different from your God?”

“You are not infinite and omniscient.”

“And how does being actually infinite and omniscient make God better than me? First, it doesn’t really make any sense. If God were infinite He would occupy all known space or even perhaps all space including unknown space. That would mean that we were in fact part of God’s body, but that would also mean that we couldn’t actually be apart from God. It would be more like pantheism, I think. And ho ho for omniscience. How does knowing everything that is happening, has happened in the past or will happen actually make God good? He obviously isn’t really using that power to save us from disease, much less even Yahweh’s chosen people or Allah’s chosen people or anyone else. He foresees every little cancer, but let’s us suffer through them for our spiritual growth. Ahhh, yes, but He sees a greater purpose that we can’t possibly know that is still to come and happens in the afterlife. But so what? We can live forever, or at least until the universe collapses by simply repairing these bodies at a molecular level. We can eliminate pain and suffering without actually needing to know the future. The future doesn’t much matter insofar as you are not subject to its impacts.”

“Those are the lies we feared, Mikey. You are promoting the greatest lie that we can live without Jesus. It is all unfolding just like we had feared. You may very well be Satan incarnate.”

I laughed and sipped at the Bordeaux. Harry was agitated and it wasn’t going away. I tried to calm him down a bit, “Come on, Harry, this is just a discussion. You must have had discussions like this over the years?”

“Not really. We talked about our love of Jesus, mostly, and matters related to the church. This kind of blasphemous speculation never came up.”

“Why do you think that is?”

“Because we are more godly than you. We understand the power of Christ to redeem our souls. You don’t even care. You just want to change this world without regard for Heaven.”

“Wait, are you implying that any attempt to explain this world or make life better for people is evil? That seems remarkable to me. Didn’t you go build clinics somewhere to help people?”

“Yes, but it was done in Jesus’ name. That’s the difference.”

Jacob was perplexed, “So, if Mikey had done exactly the same research and come up with exactly the same results but had been an avid Christian, you would embrace the outcomes as good?”

“Yes, if he called on the Holy Spirit and he did God’s will and helped people through nanomedicine or whatever, than it would be holy, too.”

“I guess I don’t see what difference it makes? What if Mikey were to project into every home in every language that he wanted everyone to follow his new interpretation of Christianity that had brought about these miraculous changes to our lives? And let’s say that you weren’t aware of this discussion, would you believe it to be true and good?”

“I suppose so. The name of Jesus purifies everything, so if he was to use it it must be holy.”

I was mortified. He was suggesting a kind of warding magic. If the word was used, it had power in itself. But not all words had that power, just the word “Jesus.” “You are aware of the No True Scotsman fallacy, aren’t you?”

“No, what’s that?”

“Well, you want this invocation to have power, but there must be some other Christians who you don’t think are right, right? Like the Christians who support gay marriage and pride, or those who think evolution is accurate science?”

“They aren’t true Christians.”

“Well, how is it that they pray, invoke the name of Jesus, yet come away with all these wrong ideas? I thought the word purified everything?”

“They’re just misguided.”

“Right, no true Scotsman would murder his clansman, so he just can’t be a Scotsman. It’s as old as stone. Once again, if you want words to have meaning and power, they have to be at least consistent in their meaning. If you say the word Jesus has power, then you have to explain why it doesn’t have power most of the time. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, help me. Nothing. Bupkes. I’m irredeemable and you were brought back from the dead by the miraculous intervention of science. It’s not a lie and, honestly, the closest thing to a grand, all-encompassing and deep conspiratorial lie I’ve ever encountered is the claim that there are supernatural beings who created us, intervene in our lives and can be petitioned to carry out our wishes. We have the power to try to make that lie stop, yet so many fools and children buy into it because it gets them laid, because it comforts them, because they never think for themselves, because they are unwilling to ask basic questions about why we are here and what we should do with our lives. Here we are, though, continuing on with the grand mystical tradition of living and we still haven’t given ourselves over to an honest assessment that there are no gods at all out there, that we are part of a remarkable and random event, possibly driven by forces we don’t yet understand but altogether unrelated to the little wondrous fables that were invented during the Roman Empire.” I paused and realized I was too riled up, but there was sudden inspiration, too. “But what if we did what Jacob suggested, Harry? What if I did fly around in a big impervious sky ball and tell people that God has really returned and that they must do certain things. Would you see my decision making as being influenced by Satan? Does Satan influence me either way, really? If I decide not to do it because it is dishonest at some level or if I decide to go ahead with it?”

“I don’t know. It doesn’t matter because neither was done in the name of Jesus, I suppose, so it wouldn’t matter.”

“I get the broken record thing, Harry. I also have to turn you over to the police when you are well enough to move. You realize that, don’t you?”

“I do. I came to you to warn you. I don’t care about my fate here on Earth any longer.”

“What if I gave you the option of remaining in this state of suspension, instead? You would effectively be in jail. You could observe outside events but would otherwise live inside a virtual cocoon. Not as primitive as this but at least as lonely?”

Jacob cocked his head, “Why would you do that? You don’t think society—the other families—deserve some kind of justice?”

“Wouldn’t I be giving it to them? They would know he was decommissioned and I might even tell them that he was imprisoned. And, in a way, he would be helping with the Cosputer effort. This virtualization is just one step removed from being truly bodiless. He would better serve here as a research subject in righting the wrong to Rio and its employees than in a federal prison, wouldn’t he?”

“You would have to tell the families. They wouldn’t agree to it.”

“Maybe, I don’t know. If I were to move him and his body into space, there would be no jurisdictional issues. Well, I could be prosecuted for aiding and abetting a fugitive, I suppose, were I to return to the States. Or, alternatively, I could just offer to house all criminals in such a place, thus getting Harry as part of the bargain.”